Robin Hood, the well-known hero of the poor who robs from the rich, has been the subject of numerous poems, stories, theatre shows, movies, and television series. Some stay close to legend, but others stray like the Disney version where Robin Hood is a talking, cartoon fox. Mel Brooks turns him in to an idiot (of course), and in 1967 someone thought it was a good idea to set the entire story
in the future, in space, with Robin and his Merry Spacemen living on Sherwood Asteroid and fighting the evil Sheriff who rules the space territory of N.O.T.T. Regardless of his appearance or the setting, Robin Hood has been called upon throughout history in times of injustice and strife. As I noted last week, the Luddites had King Ludd as their revolutionary savior. While Ned Ludd is seen by historians as a fictional character, Robin Hood may have been real. Legal records from the 13th century first show the name, and his appearance in literature began in the 14th century.
This week in class we are focusing on some of the poets from the Romantic era (named posthumously in part to canonize and label literature). Two poems on our reading list are “Robin Hood: To a Friend” by John Keats and “How Robin and His Outlaws Lived in the Woods” by Leigh Hunt. Other poems assigned didn’t focus on Robin Hood, but I took a special interest in these two in part because I’m familiar with Leigh Hunt and know many of his writings take a political tone. Hunt edited The Examiner, a paper which attacked oppression and expressed views contrary to the crown for which Hunt spent two years in jail.
Leigh Hunt, along with Keats, Shelley, and other poets and essayists, were dubbed the Cockney School of Poetry for their lower-class status, high aspirations, and political ideals of democracy and reform. It’s no surprise they’d turn to Robin Hood in 1820’s England. The Corn Laws of 1815 caused food prices to remain high, wages were low because the supply of labor was greater than demand, due in part to advances in machinery and population was increase. Political disorders and riots happened, including the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 where eleven people died and hundreds were injured at an event featuring speakers on parliamentary reform and high food prices. Parliament passed further repressive measures the same year known as the Six Acts, which in part suppressed seditious publications and most public meetings.
Using the guise of Robin Hood, writers like Hunt and Keats could write about political issues or at least allude to the plight of the lower class while avoiding breaking the law. I used a total of eight Robin Hood poems written in 1820-21 by Hunt, Keats, and Keats’ friend John Reynolds to experiment with the digital tool Voyant (https://voyant-tools.org/). Those writings and more can be found in the University of Rochester’s Robin Hood digital project (http://d.lib.rochester.edu/robin-hood). Voyant showed me a few new connections between the poems and confirmed connections I made from reading on my own. Voyant is a good starter tool for those new to Digital Humanities or technologically challenged. A larger corpus would no doubt make Voyant more useful. Maybe I can find the movie script for Rocket Robin Hood. Just kidding! (I think.)